No Warrant Needed: California Cops Allowed to Search Your Gadgets

The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, has vetoed a bill that would have required a warrant for police officers to search cell phones of people they arrest, Wired reports.This means that in the Golden State, if you somehow end up on the wrong side of the law, the cops can search your cell phone and with it, your call records, your texts, your apps if you own a smartphone, and any other data on your device. Under the proposed bill, police officers would have been required to get a court order to be able to search these records.

The bill, SB 914, was written by California Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco.

Since Governor Brown used his veto pen, the cops can simply fish your phone out of your pocket and rifle through your phone, looking for anything they might find interesting, or at least somethig that will make you look bad in court. For example, perhaps some of your contacts have (to them) funny foreign-sounding names. You might be a terrorist!

The California Supreme Court had found that California cops had the right to search cell phones, a decision that was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Brown cited these decisions as a reason to veto the bill.

“The courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizures protections,” the Governor said in a statement he issued when he rejected the bill.

The police might have more to do with the bill’s veto than the courts did. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, the union that represents police officers in the state, donated $38,900 to his 2010 campaign. If he wants another term, it’s likely that he’ll want to stay in their good graces. The union had opposed the bill as what they believed was an unnecessary restriction on their ability to arrest suspects.

This veto is a major blow for privacy. Cell phones and other mobile devices contain a lot of intimate details about our lives, even as they can easily fit in our pockets. For a lot of us, they serve as a home away from home. Those of use who live in California (as I used to) and in the U.S. are lucky in that the government cannot just search our homes without a warrant just because a cop has a vague hunch. It’s time for Governor Brown and others to extend this protection to our cell phones as well.